Thursday, June 30, 2011

Aleksandar Hemon on Narrative, Biography, Language

Aleksandar Hemon wrote a harrowing article in the recent Fiction issue of The New Yorker, "The Aquarium: A child's isolating illness." Before I even cracked open the magazine I'd heard about the article: one friend said she could not bear to read it.

The author describes how his nine month old daughter Isabel was diagnosed with an absurdly rare, viciously malignant brain tumor; how the illness progressed and his family's world imploded; and on to the cruel end.

I get it about my friend who had to give the article a pass. More than once as I read I found I could hardly breathe.

Hemon writes fiction, and his simultaneous observation of an older daughter, Ella, just shy of three years as her infant sister was dying, is as compelling as the brutal course of Isabel's decline. At the time, Ella was coming into the full flower of her grasp of language. As Hemon puts it:

It is not unusual, of course, for children of Ella's age to have imaginary friends or siblings. The creation of an imaginary character is related, I believe, to the explosion of linguistic abilities that occurs between the ages of two and four, and rapidly creates an excess of language, which the child may not have enough experience to match. She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses.

Mercilessly open-eyed about the divergent worlds in his own small family, with one daughter deathly ill and the other blooming, Hemon writes: "While our world was being reduced to the claustrophobic size of ceaseless dread, Ella's was expanding."

But here was the kicker for me, as someone who has been driven to write for all my adult life:

One day at breakfast, while Ella ate her oatmeal and rambled on about her [imaginary] brother, I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I'd been doing as a writer all these years: the fictional characters in my books had allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, had been nearly everything). Much like Ella, I'd found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my own biography.

Zing! Right to the core of the heart of the center of the bullseye. One more time: "[...] I'd found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my own biography."

That Hemon could reach into the inferno and pull this white-hot truth from the flames suggest that he has come to understand a great deal indeed. At a cost that he bears, though it is unbearable.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Does a writer need a writers' group?
Drafting vs. editing

Thanks to mktr for the image of Aleksandar Hemon reading from his novel The Lazarus Project, via Flickr.


  1. I just read that article a few days ago (on my kindle, sorry to say), and although I didn't pick up on it at the time, the excerpt you quote about an excess of words has me thinking about my own daughter who rambles on endlessly and is also a prolific writer. I don't write myself, though I've tried at various times in my life, and I often find the opposite is true, that I'm at a loss for words. Interesting to think about.

  2. @BMA: I'm not sure that 'being at a loss for words' when writing is limited to people who have trouble writing ... plenty of dedicated writers get blocked at times, and at greater and lesser degrees of severity, no?

    Perhaps also, a childhood appetite for endless rambling as a predictor of inclination to write (or even just to become a talkative person) may be an extrapolation too many. The mode a person finds to make her way through linguistic and social development might not carry forward through the whole of a lifetime. I don't remember whether I talked a lot as a kid, but as an adult I can be quite reticent in social/spoken interaction, even with close friends -- and even though I get jittery if I don't scribble or type each and every day. Like people say on Facebook, it's complicated......

    I suppose adults grow into all manner of ways of expressing who they are, and understanding the world and their place in it. In this medium we're engaged in here (blogs = language, expository prose) -- and certainly in The New Yorker, where Aleksandar Hemon found an audience for his piece -- people who tilt toward words, written or read, tend to congregate .... but many others find it more comfortable to make or listen to music; or to paint or sculpt or photograph; or to cook or eat (!).

    Today the editors of Glimmer Train pointed to another interesting take on what compels writing: not so much finding a place for one's words, but a desire to fill empty places in one's map of the world with articulated speculation. Peter Ho Davies writes about "Laying Fiction over History": The instinct to lay fiction over the top of history, if you like, is simply the instinct to understand why certain things happened. [...] One of the consolations of fiction is that it provides explanations for things we don't understand in life, in our own lives, and in the world around us.

  3. Life is strange. After reading your comments and mulling over what I was trying to say, I picked up the book I'm in the middle of and found a beautiful expression of something I have been struggling to name. From "Who Occupies This House?" By Kathleen Hill: "And why do we imagine that words - the hope not of the elusive, forbidden thing itself, but of the wave of sound that summons it- will help us into one more stricken dawn? The words, often enough, we cannot find, the words too many or too few."

  4. @BMA: A fair question. But we do, many of us. The passage you quoted reminds me of one that's been stuck in my head for ages, from Eliot's Burnt Norton:

         Words strain,
    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
    Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
    Will not stay still.